For more than a month, investigators have been at work trying to solve the mystery on everyone’s mind: What started the 416 Fire north of Durango that has burned 54,000 acres and counting, forced thousands of evacuations and caused dramatic economic losses to Southwest Colorado?
The answer is likely to have sweeping consequences: already, the cost of fighting the 416 Fire – which started June 1 – is at nearly $30 million, with the blaze only 45 percent contained as of Friday.
And that doesn’t take into account expected losses from businesses and residents affected by the fire.
While the fire has yet to consume any houses or personal property, Southwest Colorado’s crucial tourist economy is down during what should be peak season, which could result in civil lawsuits if a party is found responsible.
But as of Friday, the cause of the 416 Fire was still listed as “under investigation,” and it’s possible it could remain that way for weeks, even months, said Gretchen Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Forest Service.
“Even a small fire can take two, three weeks,” Fitzgerald said. “It takes time.”
The Durango Herald on Thursday sat down with Steven Williams, a fire investigator for the U.S. Forest Service and Christopher Syler, an investigator in training, to talk about how fire fighters determine the cause of a wildfire.
The pair – who are not working the 416 Fire – declined to talk about any specifics of the 416 Fire for fear of compromising the investigation.
Having an understanding of the process and why it can take so long, however, can help ease a restless populace that wants answers.
“With a lot of investigations, we want to keep everything confidential as much as possible because we treat it as a crime scene,” Williams said.
An investigation into the cause of a wildfire starts the moment firefighters become aware of an outbreak, Williams said, with trained and certified investigators among the emergency responders that are first dispatched in an initial attack.
“Most of the time, an investigator is coming right away … unless the fire’s way out there in the wilderness and likely started by lightning,” Syler said.
Investigators can start putting together some of the pieces of the puzzle, looking for telltale signs, such as weather conditions and what kind of location the fire started in.
If a fire broke out near a shooting range or near a campground, for instance, investigators already have a leg up on some potential causes, Williams said. Or, if a storm recently passed by, there’s a likely chance it was started by lightning.
To this effect, one of the big questions to answer early on is whether the fire was natural or human-cased. Humans, according to federal data, cause more than 90 percent of wildfires through campfires, discarded cigarettes, etc.
If the investigation deems the fire is human-caused, the next step, is to determine whether it was intentional or an accident. An important part of this process is to protect the location where the fire started, known as a “scene of origin.”
In the case of the 416 Fire, the Durango Fire Protection District was one of the first fire departments on scene after the start of the fire, about 13 miles north of Durango, in the Meadowridge subdivision.
There, it was critical first responders balance fighting the flames to prevent spread and preserving the scene of origin so as to not damage any evidence for the ensuing investigation, said Scot Davis, spokesman for the fire district.
“A big part of what our crews are trained to do is protect any evidence that could be out there so investigators can come in and get the information they need,” Davis said. “We always try our best to tread lightly on those areas.”
Once it’s safe, fire investigators will secure the scene where the fire is believed to have started, taking into account details of the area, collecting evidence, noting weather conditions and talking to any potential witnesses.
Investigators are trained to look for patterns and movement of wildfires. The angles of char on trees, for example, can help patchwork together information on the way the fire burned that can lead back to the point of origin.
Sometimes, soils can be collected and taken to labs, Williams said. To the best of their ability, fire investigators are looking for the exact pinpoint location of where the fire started.
According to a federal wildfire information database, the location of the start of the 416 Fire is just west of train tracks for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. On that day, no lightning was reported in the area.
A previous story in the Herald talked to several residents in the Meadowridge subdivision who said they saw wisps of smoke up the hillside around 9:45 a.m. June 1, moments after the train passed by. Residents in the neighborhood were accustomed to putting out fires started by the train.
The account has caused intense suspicion that the coal-fired engine, known for sending off cinders that start fires, is the culprit in the 416 Fire. If the train is found to be the cause, the train’s owner, Al Harper, said the train will take responsibility.
But fire investigators stress coming to a final determination isn’t as quick and easy as some would like it to be.
“It takes time to talk to witnesses, collect evidence, study burn patterns – to get the best outcome,” Syler said. “You don’t want to grab the first person that’s standing there. It takes quite a while.”
And even when investigations on the ground are complete, there’s a whole host of additional measures fire investigators must take behind the scenes to complete an investigation, Syler said.
“There’s a lot of office time putting all the notes and findings together,” he said. “And a big fire with a lot of factors to it – it could be months, a year, even five years in some cases.”
For example, fire investigators are only recently identifying those responsible for a 2013 fire in California, which is likely to lead to an entangled web of litigation, involving a cadre of lawyers for insurance companies and other interested parties, Syler said.
But even when investigators determine a cause and possible responsible party, Williams said the public isn’t notified immediately. Investigators must report their findings to their supervisors, who then consult with a U.S. district attorney.
“It’s a long process – especially when cost recovery is involved – to make sure every duck is in a row,” Williams said.
With no official cause of the 416 Fire, it would be speculation to say how the cost recovery process will play out. Syler said the Forest Service in recent years is being more aggressive in getting those responsible to pay for firefighting costs.
The 416 Fire has burned only a portion of private land, about 722 acres – while scorching a little more than 52,500 acres of the San Juan National Forest, mostly in the Hermosa Creek wilderness and special management area.
Losses to businesses, both in the short and long term, may not be known for months, or years. Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, said the toll could be well over $2 million just in the past month.
The Harper family, which has owned the D&SNG since 1998, is asking the public to let the investigation play out before passing judgment.
The D&SNG has been both the wrongly accused victim and the guilty party of fire accusations in the past.
About five years ago, the train was blamed and publicly flogged as the source of a small fire that actually turned out to be caused by hikers that had tossed a lit cigarette, Harper said.
On the other hand, a cinder from the D&SNG sparked a nearly 600-acre wildfire in the Weminuche Wilderness in 2002 at a time when the area was still in an extreme drought and reeling from the Missionary Ridge Fire.
In that instance, the train’s insurance paid to cover the cost of fighting the fire, known as the Schaaf Fire. According to Herald archives, Harper said the train would cover about half of the $495,000 cost of the fire.
This year, the train stopped running June 1, the day the fire broke out. Harper has said the D&SNG will not resume service until rains arrive to make it safe to make the round-trip from Durango to Silverton.
“Because of insurance, we’re not allowed to comment on (the 416 Fire),” Harper said Thursday. “To say anything one way or another, that’s not wisdom when you have insurance.”
In the meantime, the U.S. Forest Service said Thursday “there is no timeline as to when or who will release the investigation” into who or what caused the 416 Fire.
In general, when there is an identifiable party responsible for starting a fire, there is no hard and true rule of law when it comes to cost and liability. Punishments range from minor to serious depending on intent and size of the fire.